February 12, 2020

Tick Tock: We Only Have So Much Time


Our mortality: not a subject we like to think about. Even though we know with 100% certainty we will die, the acceptance of that fact is not part of our makeup. Even though we know age is not a promise of more life, the younger we are the more remote the concept.

At some point we begin to face our own death. That sensitivity may be caused by a serious illness, disability, an accident in our life, or the life of a family member, or close friend. Attending too many memorial services for acquaintances can bring the whole issue to a head. There doesn't seem to be a particular age that triggers the mortality subject, nor can I find any research that implies retirement is a milestone. Actually, it may be just the opposite: a satisfying retirement keeps one focused on life and living to the fullest.

Our reaction to our own mortality can range from panic, anger, fear, and depression, to a calm acceptance based on our faith or realization that running away from the inevitable is a waste of energy. Some folks view life as simply a cycle and at their death they return to the universe the way they started, as a collection of molecules and physical properties (dust to dust) while maybe a spiritual component remains.

Some have a strong religious belief that provides a comforting assurance of what lies ahead. Some religious systems preach reincarnation. Still others firmly believe this life is it. When it ends, it ends.

Whatever your view or belief system, even if that includes an unshakable belief in heaven and eternity, death can still be scary. The trip from this life to whatever is next can be filled with lots of unpleasantness, especially if the end is pain-filled.

In an excellent article in Psychology Today some time ago author Nathan Heflick identified several ways humans tend to cope with our mortality. Here are just a few of the more important findings:

1) defend their cultural worldviews more strongly. For instance, to agree less with a person behaving negatively toward their country, to be more punitive towards moral transgressors or those perceived as "different."

2)  self-enhance and protect self-esteem, such as by agreeing more with positive feedback and taking more credit for success.

3) identify more with members of their own group.

4)  show an increased interest in close relationships.

5) show a preference for clear, well-structured information and physical environments.

The full article is available by clicking here, but these five points really strike me as quite insightful. Some of them seem to explain some of root causes of the political turmoil and anger our society is enduring at the moment.

There are several web sites I found that give suggestions on what we should do to prepare ourselves and others for the inevitable. I have them listed below. But, the purpose of this post is to simply ask you to consider, if even for a moment, what your mortality means to you now that you have less than half your life ahead of you.

Does this awareness cause you to act any differently? Do you embrace what comes next or do you fight, with all your being, the thought that you will someday cease to exist, and the world will go on just fine without you? Does the realization that 99.999999% of the world won't know or care when you are no longer here upset you? It does me! What, no Bob?

How do we face that? What do we do to make this journey meaningful? What do we do, as the Bible's Paul tells us, to "finish strong"?

Facing your own mortality

Coping with impending death

Create meaning by facing our own mortality

Facing the fear of death

The only comfort I can share is the reality that every single one of us will go through this process. If there is one experience that every human shares it is this one. Anything we feel, or fear, or rebel against, we have good company: all of humankind!

38 comments:

  1. I know you read my blog Bob, so you know that I am one of those who don't fear death. It is just what it is. If my genes hold out I have a handful of years left on this earth. That's fine with me. I have lived a good life. But, one thing I am determined to do is to live the years I have left as fruitful and as satisfying as possible.

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  2. Oh, I forgot to add my special ending to the previous comment. For those who think they are indispensable, I want them to know that "graveyards are full of indispensable people." - Charles de Gaulle

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    1. I don't fear actual death, but I am quite apprehensive about the possibility of a painfilled slide towards the end. Those who have lived a full life and just drop dead are the winners in this case. I watched my mom slowly waste away for 3 years. Near the end the essential person was long gone. That is the part I don't want any part of, but it isn't up to me.

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    2. You must know, Bob, that doctors are the least likely group to die in the hospital. They've seen what a miserable and dehumanizing end that is, so as soon as they have a terminal diagnosis, they check themselves out and die at home. In this case at least, we should all follow their example.

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  3. Death is inevitable. "When?" is the big question. I am glad there is an end. In the meantime, I engage in life. As to your question - Do you embrace what comes next or do you fight, with all your being, the thought that you will someday cease to exist, and the world will go on just fine without you? The workplace that I engaged in for 34 yrs managed quite well without me; I expect the world at large will as well.

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    1. Yes, it is both somewhat distressing and I guess affirming of the continuity of life that we leave a very small ripple in the pond at our passing. Our memories and legacy with loved ones continues (one hopes), but there are 7 billion other humans who will continue to breathe in and breathe out.

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  4. I do not fear my own death. What I fear is living on without my loved ones who may die before me.My rich spiritual life helps some, but truthfully, I fell apart last year when our son was dx. With a melanoma. Out fo the blue a super healthy young guy faced possible chemo,surgery.etc... Luckily it was caught very early, but the surgery was more extensive that we thought it would be and “mortality” hit home for our whole family. We also have a 33 year old niece who was just dx.With an aggressive breast cancer.She and our nephew and their 3 year old are in a world of hurt, but valiantly facing the future with faith and good doctors to help them. Mortality— isn’t it amazing how title we thought about it, 20 or 30 years ago! Life stretched out seemingly endlessly.. now, not so much. I used prayer,meditation and logical thought and research to help me get past last year’s troubles, and my entire family has an even greater appreciation of daily joys: I take huge Joy in small things..the sound of the waterfall while enjoying my coffee on our patio, a hike in the desert or at Saguaro Lake, a road trip to Bisbee, to walk and talk with my husband and sip some wine on top of a mountain in our cheap airbnb rental.A good day at the library! I’v e been blessed with an optimistic nature and it serves me well, I tend to bounce back from stresses. ANd I have always enjoyed the “small things” in life more so than a lot of people I know who crave more continual adventures and stimulation. Thoughtful post,Bob..thanks..

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    1. I guess we can either choose to face the negatives and fears or turn toward the positives and sunshine. Neither will change the final outcome, but the attitude can make whatever time we do have life-affirming and as you say, with a greater appreciation for the small daily joys.

      I don't fear leaving this earth. I don't believe in a literal heaven with me, my loved ones, and the angels roaming around for eternity. But, I do believe my essence, my soul, or universal energy will continue. It will revert back to where it came from. This body is just a temporary holding place.

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  5. I don't really worry about it. Hummm- I think that comes back to what you shared with us about your mother and worry.
    You should find that article and run it again. I wonder if it is the same as I remember it?
    Having friends pass makes us both know we want no extraordinary measures from this point on. We are not interested in "cheating death". I doubt either of us would go through extensive chemo or want a new heart. It is not a competition. Death is just a part of our lives. Pain comes and pain goes. It is what it is.
    I do believe there is an afterlife, but nothing like the one that I was taught. I believe that ALL will be a part of God (or the universe) and will journey to being as close to perfect as possible. In the end, I will be gone from this world and I need to leave it as best I can for the future generations.
    I have found that when genealogy became a part of my life, it was the life stories I reached for. Who were these people? How am I like them - nature vs nurture. Compelled to find gravesite and places that they lived, I can weave who they were with who I am. It is a circle, I think.
    In turn, being a part of the youngest generation has become even more important to --both of us. Being remembered, by even one more generation, passing lessons learned is a part of how we view the important lessons of our lives. Making their lives better is more important then making our lives better.
    I find we are WAY less judgmental in our 60's and 70' then our 40's and 50's when you had to comply to get along. Even my 89 yr old mother is less judgmental- with her red Trump hat on. We all find that gets the next generation no where. Maybe that is a Western attitude? Coats and ties keep people "buttoned up" to comply for much longer in life?

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    1. I will look for the article you mentioned, Janette.

      INterestingly, Betty has started getting into the genealogy of her family and mine. That does provide vivid proof that we come and go and are part of an unbroken line.

      I don't want all of medical technology and its ridiculous price tag to keep a shell of me breathing for an extra sliver of time. The refusal to let go reflects a lack of faith in what follows or the desperation of relatives to keep a hole from opening up in their lives.

      If I am kept alive with no hope of recovery, or just as a body with tubes sprouting from every part of me, then, please turn off the switch. I have a DNR and specific instructions in a health directive. I want it followed.

      After all, I believe I have somewhere else to be.

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  6. I don't fear death but I sure have gotten obsessed with not leaving behind a lot of work for my nieces to have to do after I'm gone.

    I don't believe in an after-life except that we either live fondly in the memories of others, or we don't. In that sense I believe we're in heaven if we are missed and in hell if we no one cares that we've died.

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    1. Leaving your affairs in order and as little workload for relatives as possible is a very loving thing to do. It is hard enough to lose someone; having to sort through all the bits and bobs, and odds and ends left only adds to the time it takes to begin to heal.

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  7. Although I know death is, year by year, coming ever closer so far I've been using it almost as an endpoint to plan for. Perhaps I haven't fully embraced the idea that I will die, in my plan it's still 15-20 years away (but you know what God does when man makes plans). I do think about death in an abstract way but maybe that's how it is when it isn't immediate, when you aren't literally at death's door. Am I afraid of death? I'll think know that when I am directly facing it, until then I think it's still abstract.

    I have noticed over the last few years on-going conditions are starting to appear. Nothing too serious yet but ones that require a couple of prescription tablets every morning. Five years ago I had a clean bill of health but age is catching up with me and that also brings home the passage of time. I can see that the next 2 decades of my life aren't going to be like the last 2 decades.

    I do have certain things I'd like to do before I die, not "bucket list" but just things I'd like to accomplish. Nothing too grand, some travel, being close with family, spending time in nature, celebrating milestones, ordinary things really. I am also conscious that time is limited to get these things done so I pay attention and try and make sure I make the best use of it. I try not to worry too much and keep in mind that when I go, living memory of my grandparents will go with me and the same thing will happen when my grandchildren pass on many decades from now (hopefully). Things that loom so large for me today likely won't even be remembered 100 years from now and that helps me keep things in perspective.

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    1. What we obsess over on a regular basis will be nothing for those who keep on living. You are right. That reality helps us not get too hung up on the little stuff.

      You noticed that about the pills, too! Five years ago I took an occasional aspirin. Now, there are a few more as part of my regular routine, though not too many yet. I did have a CT scan last week (a first) and a few blood tests more than I used to. But, so far things are OK. As long as every day isn't taken up by a doctor visit, I figure I am ahead of the game.

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  8. Watching my mother spend her last year in a nursing home was my wake up call and now I don't sweat the small stuff. I focus on having as much fun as I can while I'm healthy enough to do so. I've been thinking about this death thing recently and the thought of doing something similar to what they did in the movie Second Hand Lions is kind of appealing. I want to die with my boots on. If you haven't seen it you should take a look it's priceless!

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    1. It was a warm and encouraging movie. I enjoyed it. Dying in a biplane crash at an advanced age sounds like a dramatic way to exit this world.

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  9. I have buried several people close to me over the years. One thing that most of these people held dear was their faith in their religious beliefs of heaven and being in God's presence in the afterlife. For many years of my younger adult life, I turned away from spirituality and trusted more in my own abilities. I have learned over the years and after experiencing loss of loved ones that I need God in my life and I now strive to strengthen my spiritual relationship with the Almighty. When my mom passed away in 2010, I told everyone at the burial that she was not here and what we were burying was a shell that held her soul. I asked folks to praise her passage and to rejoice as she wanted us to when she went to be with God. I miss her dearly and do at times cry because I miss her just like I miss my father, brother, and other relatives who have passed. I decided in 2017 after losing a job I absolutely loved that I must live my remaining years on this earth as if every day was my last day. I also decided that I must strengthen my faith and change the direction of my life which I have done. My objective for the rest of my life is to live each day as if it were my last and try to gain all the experiences I can (travel, building new relationships and improving existing ones, expand my mind, grow spiritually, etc). I don't fear death per se but I do fear the pain of dying if there is pain. That fear is an area I am working to overcome. My other fear is my wife dying before me. I know that fear is rooted in selfishness and it is something I too much overcome. I try not to think of death a lot but do try to plan for making the time easy on my heirs when I do go home to be with God. My mom made it easy on me so I want to pay that love forward as well to my wife and children should I go first. Now, back to the joys of life!!

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    1. Just a beautiful, very heartfelt response to this post. I have nothing to add to your thoughts. Nicely said, Dan.

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  10. Hi Bob! This is such an important topic because I've read so much about what "positive aging" looks like and one thing I keep reading over and over again is that those who face and prepare for our inevitable future are actually far happier and more at peace about what will happen. On the flip side, those that refuse to talk about it, think about it or face it are often far more haunted and struggle with the situation as it unfolds. I guess you can guess which way I intend to approach the subject? Of course, I do have my own spiritual beliefs that offer me comfort and meaning so I believe that makes a big difference as well. Like some of your other commenters, I am not crazy about the possibility of pain if or when the time comes, but I'm also a VERY good storyteller and am able to reweave just about any scenario. Again, I believe that is a useful tool. I also had an example from my father who showed me that it was possible to stay aware, conscious and to make many choices that determined his exact time and I hope to follow in his footsteps. I trust that everyone start this conversation because I'm convinced that it is in all of our best interests. ~Kathy

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    1. My evolving spiritual path has been important to me as I figure out how I think about my place now and in the future. The church training of my childhood has blossomed into a much more inclusive view of the place of God in my life, one that is based solely on love and giving me hope, rather than exclusion and punishment if I break the rules.

      I try to think of the body as just a temporary and ultimately flawed container for the ultimate universal force (or Holy Spirit) that continues. I hope it is easier to face future illness and pain if I accept what I am going through has no effect on the eternity of my connection to God.

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  11. I don't fear death, nor do I fight against it. At this point, I am just trying to live my best life. I guess I may be in a bit of denial but death just isn't on my radar right now. Have you ever attended a Death Cafe? It is a very interesting and enlightening experience, one that I think many people could benefit from.

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    1. Like you, death isn't really on my radar at the moment. Of course, how I react when the time approaches may be different than the intellectual approach I have now. I say i won't fear it, but that may be denial talking.

      I have never heard of a Death Cafe. I did an Internet search...an interesting idea. I gather you have been to one?

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    2. Yes, I've attended several in our area. I've always meant to write a post about it... now maybe I'll actually do it. If you get a chance, you might want to check one out.

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    3. Hi Bob and Janis! I just popped back here to read replies and saw this post. I haven't attended an official "Death Cafe" but read quite a bit about them and talked to several of the founders at one point when they were getting started. I agree they are a very powerful group and a wonderful way for people to get comfortable with what is sure to unfold in all of our futures. ~Kathy

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  12. Some years back, I spent a year with the word "prepare." I took it to mean prepare to die. Not in any morbid sense, or with any particular premonition, but meaning that I spent a year making my peace with the reality that I would someday die. Sort of my more sanitized version of the Buddhist practice of meditating in the charnel grounds. After that year, I did in fact feel at peace with my life and eventual death. Ever since, each year, no really each day, feels like a gift. I have no regrets, no unfinished business, and I feel free to enjoy what life brings me.

    Many mornings, I borrow a practice I read in a book. When I wake up, I remind myself, "I am one day closer to my death. How do I want to live this day?" Again, I don't experience this as morbid. It is a great focusing practice, reminding me to savor life to the fullest, to love greatly, to seize every opportunity to be kind.

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    1. "I have no regrets, no unfinished business, and I feel free to enjoy what life brings me." That is a tremendous way to approach each day. It takes a certain level of maturity to reach this state and I salute you.

      I will attempt to remember to wake up tomorrow with the same thought on my mind. Thank you.

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  13. Great discussion. I don't think I'm afraid of death. But having lost quite a few close family members over the years, I would say I may be in denial because the females in my family generally live a long life with their faculties intact. The hardest part, if watching my mom at 87 yo is any indication, is having all of your contemporaries die around you. She's commented that that's the hardest part of aging, and I also admire how straightforward she is in discussing her own death and its inevitability.

    Like you, I would dread a long illness, but I've also seen some amazing things happen when people are dying, e.g. reconciliations, softening of hearts, etc. And I will say pain can be managed in most situations now, so that's comforting. Dementia is the hardest to watch, I think, but the patient typically doesn't realize what's happening, so it's harder on the family IMO.

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    1. Dementia and Alzheimer's terrify me...not so much for me but for those around me. Watching someone you love "disappear" has to be very, very difficult to deal with.

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  14. I have tried to be mindful of my mortality. I find that it reminds me to be present and not get caught up in trivial distractions. I also don't fear death, but like you, fear decline. I found an article in the Atlantic several years ago that outlined an interesting position on death and aging:

    https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/10/why-i-hope-to-die-at-75/379329/

    Rick in Oregon

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    1. I did find the author's take to be interesting. He makes many important points. As a culture we do tend to prolong life well past the point where someone should be allowed to move to whatever is next.

      As I approach my 71st birthday, I do have problems with his "I want to die at 75" premise. 80 or 85 sound better to me. Ask me in 7 or 8 years and I may push that out another 10 years.

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    2. My neighbor Alice lived to be 98. She was still living in her own apartment, had a clear mind and enjoyed crafts and sewing. Her husband had died when she was 58. She had to use a walker, but could still get out. The most important thing was she always kept a positive outlook. If I can be like her,than I want to live a long life. I used to think that I was helping her doing little chores,but really she was teaching me how to grow old.

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  15. Yes I predict that you will push that out. I just had my 80th birthday and have no health problems except for a back that gets a bit in the way sometimes. I feel pretty much like I did 10 years ago. So with a little luck I'm thinking 87 or 90. Of course all that could change tomorrow. Oddly, I don't think much about death itself, but I worry about how I am spending the time I have left. As you know, time seems to pass more quickly the older you get. At this point it is rushing by at warp speed. 87 or 90 will be here in a flash and what will I have done with the time I've been given? And will it matter? Probably not.

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    1. Time absolutely seems to speed up. We just celebrated New year's Eve with the grandkids seemingly a few weeks ago, but it was really over 6 weeks. How can February already be half over?

      My dad lived to 91 which seems like a good number. He was healthy and independent until the afternoon he died. Sometime between lunch and dinner he had a stroke and was gone. That's my idea of a quick exit. Of course, Donna above notes her neighbor is 98 and still going strong. Who knows what we have in store.

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  16. I think mortality is what gives life meaning. After I was diagnosed with cancer at age 50, I managed for a while to maintain a near-perfect balance between living for the moment as though I had few left and preparing for the future in case I might have one. As the years since my diagnosis have accumulated, it has become harder to keep that sense that time is short and that every moment is precious and should be lived fully.

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    1. That is a very important observation. Without death there would be no pressure to ever do much of anything since there would always be tomorrow. With no "finish line" what would keep us motivated?

      If given the chance to live for hundreds of years I would say, "No thank you." I believe this part of my existence on earth is just small part of whatever part my essence is playing. To be stuck on this one stage would mean I would never learn what comes next.

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  17. I was with my mother as she passed away. She reached towards the one window in the room and called out mom,.. mama ....several times with her eyes closed. She also had a pale golden glow on her face for awhile after she passed. I made my husband come over to the bed to witness this with me. All her wrinkles smoothed out also and she looked at complete peace. This has given me comfort about her death and my own future one. Sherry

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    1. That must have been a very comforting experience at a natural time of grief and feeling of loss. You are blessed to have witnessed it.

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